As per my sister’s travel checklist, I am required to write a guide to one place that I visit while exploring the world. For anyone following my blog during the last two trips, it should come as no surprise that I have chosen the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca as the subject of this guide. No city in Europe have I enjoyed more than Cluj, and in no place outside of the Chambersburg and Phoenix areas have I spent more time. It seems only fitting that I should enlighten others to the only city I would have considered staying for a time, had the chance arisen. Enjoy the tour!
First, a bit of demographics. Cluj is the second largest city in Romania, but only has a population of about 350,000 (which increases quite a bit starting in October when the University opens). It is quite a distance from the other large cities in the country, with Timisoara to the west, Iasi to the east, and Bucharest (the capital) to the south. For the English-speaking traveler – aren’t they all? – have no fears: just about everyone I’ve encountered in Romania is fluent, and Cluj is no exception. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the Romanians are much easier to understand than the Brits and Aussies – NATIVE English speakers! The weather is fairly mild, too, with average temperatures across the calendar year ranging from 20° – 75° F (-6.5° – 25°C).
Now I know you are asking: “how does one find their way to this veritable Garden of Eden, this Heaven on Earth?” Well, stop asking. This is a blog, not an interactive Q&A. I’m such a nice guy, I’m going to tell you despite the rude interruption. The most obvious, if you are outside of the country, is by plane. Being the second largest city in Romania, Cluj has erected the Avram Iancu International Airport about 10 kilometers east of the city center. Though I have always arrived by land, many of the fellow travelers I have met flew in from other parts of Europe. Apparently there are several budget airlines with terminals at the Cluj Airport. The other option, obviously, is by ground transportation. There are many trains and buses connected to Cluj from other cities – just please beware the Hunger Train. It runs all the way from Timisoara to Iasi (stopping in Cluj), and is most likely the least fun you could possibly have in Europe. As for myself, I actually used the ride share website Blablacar both times from Bucharest. The first of these, last year, drove me through Brasov. This year I made a stop in Sibiu for a few days (before catching a bus the rest of the way). Having a choice, take the route through Brasov. The mountains surrounding the city are quite possibly the most gorgeous I have ever seen, one of the reasons I’m heading to Brasov after I leave here. Hitchhiking is also a real option. I have not hitched for long distances in Romania – several times for shorter journeys – but I’ve heard many positive stories from others about the ease of hitchhiking. The only downside is that sometimes the drivers expect a little cash for their troubles. Still, this would most likely be preferrable over public transportation, and even cheaper than Blablacar.
Continuing on the transportation theme, we will venture inside the city. As many travelers can attest, often times the most daunting challenge of a new city is the public transportation system. Cluj is equipped with quite a selection of buses, trams, and inexpensive taxis to get from one place to another. The taxis are the quickest and easiest way to move about, and while cheap, they will cost you a bit more than buses and trams. Though I have no encountered the same problems here as I have with other cities (Skopje, I’m glaring at you), always make sure the cab drivers turn the meter on. Otherwise they are welcome to charge you whatever they’d like. The trams (cars connected to the power grid), from what I can tell, seem to be used mainly for travel close to the city center. I have actually not utilized any trams during my stay here, as I would much rather walk if I am staying near downtown. The buses, on the other hand, make their way to the surrounding neighborhoods, and have become an invaluable time-saver for me. When using the buses, it helps if you know where you started. Take a picture of the bus stop sign. This will tell you where you need to be dropped off and which of the buses stop there. A smartphone application that has become indispensable to me is called CTP Cluj-Napoca. It lists all the buses, their routes, timetables, and even lets you buy a virtual ticket on your phone – IF you have a certain cellular carrier. I did not, so I wound up buying tickets from the machines located at most of the stops. They are only 2 Lei, so I would usually buy 5 at a time to make sure I had them for quick use in the future. So download the app I mentioned, use a bit of situational awareness, don’t forget to ask if you are lost, and you should have no trouble getting around this beautiful city!
Now you are probably wondering: “where should I stay during my trip to Cluj?” Damn it, we’ve been over this. No more questions. I only have limited experience in this area, but I’ll try my best. Of course there are many hotels in the city. Hotels are never a problem for a traveler without a budget. Otherwise, I would (and always do, regardless of funds) suggest hostels. I have been here twice, for a total of close to a month, and only patronized a single hostel. Last year I chose it simply because of the name. This year I chose it because of the great time I had last year. The Spot Cosy Hostel (get it?) is located a bit outside of the city center, maybe a 20-minute walk, in the neighborhood of Grigorescu. Right outside the front gate is a convenient bus stop at which several buses into the city pass. If you would like to find another hostel closer to the city, be my guest. It is best to use sites like Hostelworld.com and Booking.com to find a place to sleep, but be a good traveler and DO NOT BOOK THROUGH THESE SITES. Use them only to search, then contact the hostel to book. Or, as I almost always do, just show up and ask if they have a bed. Only very rarely has this backfired. Booking through promotional sites costs the hostels quite a bit of money – money I would rather give to small-business owners. Another option is Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing takes quite a bit of time and effort, and usually has to be prepared before arriving, but I have never surfed in a city with better results. Although I didn’t try it last year, I have already surfed twice this year, as well as used the site just to meet locals with whom to get a drink or coffee.
Now we get to the good stuff: where and what to eat. Having spent so much time here, I have sampled quite a few of the local restaurants. Although I am trying to cook for myself, sometimes it’s easier just to have someone else do it for you. Fortunately, there is no shortage of delicious food to be had in Cluj. Unfortunately, my favorite restaurant from last year has since closed due to a massive plague outbreak (I assume). I can’t remember every restaurant I have visited, but I will try to list the ones that stand out the most. Livada is one of my favorites, and seems to be one of the most popular with locals. Roata is a great hidden gem that I tried with friends after returning from an exhausting day-trip outside the city. If you ever find yourself on the far end of Grigorescu, try the Plan Bistro. It is a nice quiet place to get lunch and a beer. I didn’t much care for Bulkagov, but maybe I just received an old piece of chicken for lunch. Regardless, I doubt I would choose to eat there again. Klausen Burger, near downtown, had delicious food and a great view of the city atop their roof terrace. Camino offered delicious pasta and a good selection of wine. There have probably been a dozen more places I have eaten (such as the Wok n Roll – too much sodium in the soy sauce), but if you are new to a city the best part is trying out places for yourself. I have found that more often than not, a random restaurant selection will give you an enjoyable experience. However, if you eat anything at all in Romania, you simply MUST try the Papanasi. I have had it no less than three times, and it was amazing at each. Another treat I recommend is called Kürtőskalács – bread rolled into a tube, baked, and covered in cinnamon and sugar (or other flavors). Both are a necessity while in Romania.
After such a good meal, you are surely going to want to see all the sights the city has to offer, right?! Well have no fear, there is absolutely no shortage of those. The Botanical Gardens are quite expansive, with lovely trails in and around the greenhouses. Beside the gardens is a very large cemetery that makes for an interesting, if solemn, stroll. Nearby the city is located the Hoia Baciu Forest, the most haunted forest in the world (or at least Romania). A few friends and I paid for a nighttime guided tour. In addition to the guide, our tour included water and taxi rides to and from the hostel. Still, I think it would have been more interesting – and more frightening – had we just ventured up there on our own. Also, much cheaper. Close to the forest is an Ethnographic Museum. It is more of a compound with authentic buildings brought in from around the country, including farmhouses and baker’s huts. It makes for an interesting and educational experience, but make sure you get there at least two hours before they close. Otherwise you may be rushed out by the security who can’t wait to leave. Located close to the square is an Apothecary Museum that I had the pleasure of visiting last year. There are many other museums in Cluj – in fact there is a place named “Museum Square” – but I’ve only been to one or two of those, and wasn’t really all that impressed. The old town square, next to the big church (you really can’t miss it) is impressive, and it’s possible to relax there for hours and people-watch. Many times there are performances in and around the church that provide a bit of impromptu entertainment. One last recommendation I have is the hill overlooking the city. It has a name, and I could take the time to look it up, but I won’t. I have been working on this post for over two hours already. You will notice it by the giant silver cross overlooking the city to the north. The hike up there is quite easy, and the view of Cluj is beautiful at any time of day.
When the sun goes down in Transylvania, the only thing you have to worry about is the clubs not closing early enough. Seriously, why would anyone want to go clubbing until 0600? The damn sun is up at that point! Anyway, if you are looking for something to do while in the city, I can help with a few suggestions. Of course, there are no shortage of bars and cafes. I have been to several, and most are fairly similar. The Shelter is a club right by the square that offers live music (at least on the weekends when I was there). The first night I didn’t really care for it, but the second night was much better. If you like clubs, I would say give it a chance. Just be prepared for the high-intensity spotlights they shine directly into the eyes of the audience. The only other club I have patronized (I just realized that word has two very disparate meanings) is The Gazette, which seems to be popular among tourists. It was apparently an old arms bunker that I can only assume was no longer needed after the Cold War. It was a little cramped inside, and smelled exactly how you’d think an underground cement bunker should smell, but I would rate it above the former establishment. If clubbing isn’t your scene, the cinema by the eternal flame shows some good Romanian movies. I went there with friends and saw Caini (translation: Dogs). There is also a massive arena that hosts sporting events and musical festivals and such. If you need to get some shopping done, or want to visit a bigger cinema with more international (American) titles, try taking the 28B bus to the last stop at the Polus Center. They also have a Decathlon store here, which is invaluable for travelers that need to pick up random supplies.
Feel like taking a day-trip outside of the city? Turda has you covered! First of all, getting there. You could take a bus, but where is the fun in that? If you head over to the Romanian Opera (not to be confused with the Magyar [Hungarian] Opera) and cross the road you will find a flower shop. Simply stand there for a few minutes and someone operating a gypsy cab will offer you a ride. Sometimes you have to wait until they fill up all their seats, but this usually doesn’t take long. As a disclaimer: I refer to them only as “gypsy” cabs because they are unlicensed, and as such would earn that connotation in the United States. I understand that that term has significantly different meanings here, especially in Romania. I don’t intend that they are driven BY gypsies. Moving right along…the gypsy cab only charges 7 Lei, and the trip takes about 45 minutes. After being dropped off in the center, two fellow travelers and I walked the several kilometers to the Turda Salt Mines. I wish I could recommend a better way to get there, but I didn’t see a minibus pass us the entire walk. We were, however, able to hitchhike back into town afterward. The Salt Mines are very impressive. In the lower levers there is a lake around which you can row a small boat for only 10 Lei. In my opinion, the most impressive part was the echo chamber. It’s fun for children of all ages! After making it back into town the three of us split a cab to the Turda Gorge. Again, I wish I could offer a better, cheaper way to reach the gorge, but I still didn’t see any public transportation that could take us the 10 kilometers outside the city. Regardless, splitting a cab three ways was only about 10 Lei each. The Gorge is simply spectacular, and if you have any experience with rock climbing you will love the many paths up the sheer cliff that are marked by previous climbers. Walking through the Gorge took about two to three hours, but brings you out in a very small village. Again, we were forced to hitchhike back to Turda, but this time it was out of convenience, not necessity. Buses to Turda left every few hours; we just didn’t want to wait that long. Back in the city it was fairly simple to ask around until we found a bus headed back to Cluj. With a little common sense and talking to locals, it was easy to find our way around Turda and back to Cluj.
I hope you have enjoyed my city guide to Cluj-Napoca! If I remember anything I have left out I will make every attempt to update it. And I guess if I get enough good responses I may start writing guides for every city I visit in the future. Please respond if you have any questions or comments. Cheers!
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